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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 291-309

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Spectacular Failure:
Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens and Chicago Entertainment

Judith A. Sebesta


IMAGE LINK= On September 1, 2000, Worksong, a play about Frank Lloyd Wright by Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson, opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. 1 Were he still alive, Wright would no doubt be pleased. The celebrated architect was convinced of his own importance as the greatest American architect in history; surely in his mind this place in history warranted the creation of numerous narratives on the topic. But more pragmatically, throughout his life, Wright attended and supported the arts, particularly theatre and music, and many architectural historians and critics have posited the theatrical nature of both his life and work. But his first chance to actually combine architecture and entertainment came eighty-six years before the opening of Worksong with the commission for Midway Gardens. In 1914, this most fanciful of Wright's creations opened in Chicago, a cacophony of yellow brick, spires, sprites, trumpeting winged figures, and brightly colored murals (Figure 1). Wright designed this enormous "pleasure complex" after outdoor concert gardens in Europe (from where Wright had recently returned) to house concerts and other performances, a tavern, and restaurants. It was to be a union of architecture, the visual arts, and the performing arts--Wright's gesamtkunstwerk. Wright believed that it was in architecture that the arts could truly be unified, and conversely, that only through the unification of architecture and the arts that one could truly be an architect.

Unfortunately, Wright's most "theatrical" design, as Wright historian Robert McCarter referred to Midway Gardens, was demolished fifteen years after it opened, having been both a beer garden and dance hall. 2 Its demolition, I would argue, was due in no small part to Wright's own misunderstanding of Chicago's changing nature in the second decade of the twentieth century, particularly that of South Side Chicago. In spite of his own close relationship with Chicago, Wright's misinterpretation of its character in the early twentieth century led to the eventual failure of Midway Gardens. Although numerous attempts have been made to explain the reason for the decline and eventual disappearance of this remarkable structure, none have been completely satisfactory. In order to fully understand the conundrum of Frank Lloyd Wright, [End Page 291] Chicago, and Midway Gardens, it is necessary to first examine Wright's life and work in the context of Chicago, as well as the general character of turn-of-the-century Chicago, particularly its entertainment traditions. I will then explore Wright's relationship with entertainment, particularly theatre, in order to understand the motivation behind the creation of Midway Gardens, and what might have been at stake for Wright in building it. Finally, I will look at the character of Midway Gardens itself, from its fanciful exterior to the varied performers who appeared on its stages, demonstrating how site can affect the creation, life, and destruction of an entertainment structure.

Wright and Chicago

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 and died at the age of ninety-two; he spent a significant part of his prolific career as an architect working in Chicago, and he lived in a suburb of Chicago, Oak Park, for much of his early career. Although many credit Chicago with making Wright's career, Wright himself alternately embraced it and shunned it, often seeming to long for "greener" pastures. In his autobiography Wright describes his first impressions of the "Eternal City of the West," as he calls it, "Chicago! Immense gridiron of noisy streets. Dirty . . . Heavy traffic crossing both ways at once, managing somehow: torrential noise." 3 [End Page 292]

Wright had grown up in and around Spring Green, Wisconsin, a few hours north of Chicago, and attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But, eager to begin practicing architecture, in 1887 he dropped out and headed south, lacking training, experience, and money. But Wright could not have picked a better time to descend on Chicago. After the Great Fire of 1871 and the economic depression of...


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